THE Artur Beterbiev-shaped mountain that Anthony Yarde stands beneath is substantial. On rare occasion, we have seen similar sized peaks scaled but the sheer height of the climb, particularly for the uninitiated, generally proves too much. Such would appear the case this weekend when Yarde, 23-2 (22), challenges the fearsome world light-heavyweight champion inside Wembley Arena in North London.
One only has to look at their respective CVs and the case for the upset is already fanciful, even before studying their respective form and styles. Beterbiev has been boxing since he was a youngster and were it not for Oleksandr Usyk, it’s likely that the Russian-Canadian would have added to an already impressive medal haul that included winning World Championship gold in 2009, a silver in 2007, and two European Championship golds in 2006 and 2010. In his last two major amateur championships, he lost close decisions to Usyk in the 2011 Worlds and the Olympics a year later.
As a professional, Beterbiev has taken that pedigree and ran with it. Not one of his 18 opponents has heard the final bell. In truth, only the 17-0 Oleksandr Gvozdyk, had more than fleeting moments of success against him when, in October 2018, Beterbiev won in the 10th round while narrowly behind on two of the three scorecards. That remains Beterbiev’s most taxing outing and, for context here, Gvodzdyk had boxed at a high level as a professional and beaten the likes of Dmitry Bivol in the vested code.
Beterbiev has consistently been operating at world class in the pro ranks, unlike Yarde. In his sixth pro contest he flattened former belt-holder Tavoris Cloud before going on to hammer the likes of Gabriel Campillo, Enrico Koelling, Callum Johnson, Marcus Browne and, in his most recent outing last June, Joe Smith Jnr. Okay, it’s not quite the stuff that legend are made of – Beterbiev still has things to achieve before he reaches that status – but it nonetheless dwarfs the achievements of Saturday night’s challenger.
Yarde has fought just one opponent, Sergey Kovalev, who could rightly claim to be proven at the highest level. And though Anthony performed better than many expected, particularly in round eight when Kovalev was in real trouble, he was losing comfortably on the cards when he was stopped in the 11th. Furthermore, the Kovalev of 2019 past his best and not the formidable proposition that Beterbiev remains today. The next best rival on the underdog’s ledger is Lyndon Arthur, who outpointed a lacklustre Yarde in December 2020 only to be stopped in four rounds one year later. And if it wasn’t for intercontinental titles boosting his rankings amongst the sanctioning bodies, Yarde may not be in this position at all; though he is certainly one of the leading British light-heavies, the likes of Callum Smith and Joshua Buatsi would object to claims he’s his country’s best. Furthermore, Yarde’s amateur credentials barely exist. He had a handful of bouts before turning over. It’s easy, therefore, to understand why Beterbiev is a big 1/10 favourite.
But to end the investigation there would be unfair. Yarde does have things in his favour. Firstly, he’ll be fighting at home. Or, more accurately, he’s significantly closer to it than Beterbiev will be. Though Wembley is at the opposite end of the Jubilee line to Stratford, the town where Yarde and his old pals caused chaos on the streets before he gave boxing a try, it’s unquestionable that he’ll have the lion’s share of the support. It’s a long way from Canada, USA and Russia, the three nations that Beterbiev has boxed in as a pro and this marks his first outing in London since he lost to Usyk at the Olympics 10-and-a-half years ago. So, for those looking for a sign (or a straw to clutch), they might conclude that England is not a happy stomping ground for the champion.
The 31-year-old Yarde, half-an-inch taller at 6ft, is the younger man by seven years (Beterbiev turned 38 last weekend) and would appear to be improving and maturing in a way that his opponent is not. Relative freshness can play a huge part in boxing matches and, considering Beterbiev’s age and his long history of exchanging punches, it’s feasible to envision a scenario where the fast and hurtful hands of Yarde expose the ageing champion as a fighter in decline. Feasible, but still a stretch.
For Yarde to win, his critics say, he’ll not only need Beterbiev to be fading, tired and homesick, he’ll need “The Beast” to be barely recognisable from the fighter he proved he was as recently as six months ago. Then, while collecting his third sanctioning body title at 175, he was typically menacing as he stalked Joe Smith before thrashing a proven light-heavyweight force inside two rounds. Beterbiev, despite the rapid nature of his victory, was never in a rush. Patient and calculating, Beterbiev draws mistakes – and a burgeoning sense of panic – from opponents with deceivingly canny approach play. He will move from side to side, then march forward on clever feet, raid with purpose behind a ramrod jab and look for openings for his looping power shots. Smith, who had never before been floored, was rescued inside six minutes after taking four counts. By the time Smith realised his somewhat kamikaze approach – that of meeting the smaller Beterbiev head-on – was not working, he was so dazed and desperate he could do nothing whatsoever to change it.
Yarde, alongside coaches Tunde Ajayi and James Cook, will surely realise that going straight at Beterbiev with arms swinging is the wrong approach. Marcus Browne had more success in December 2021, zipping around the perimeter of the ring and jabbing whenever Artur got close but his gameplan, which did win the odd round, inevitably led to physical and psychological exhaustion. Even though Beterbiev was forced to endure a deep cut after his forehead collided with Brown’s, he retained his composure and steadily turned the screw. Decked in the seventh, Browne was knocked out in the ninth.
Crucially for anyone facing Beterbiev, what they need to prepare for is a feeling of extreme claustrophobia as the puncher inevitably closes in and makes what starts out as a 20ft boxing ring feel more like a telephone box. And it’s that demonic approach from Beterbiev, never conducted with any undue urgency or concern, that is arguably his greatest strength.
Yarde, a tremendous puncher himself, will fancy that he hits harder than Browne and can box smarter than Smith. He will take encouragement, too, from the fact Beterbiev has been down twice in previous bouts. In 2014, Beterbiev walked into a Jeff Page Jnr cuffing right hand in the opening round before ending matters in the second. More telling than that flash knockdown was the fall he experienced against Callum Johnson four years later. On that occasion, Beterbiev was visibly shaken and momentarily unsteady as he tried to rise in third. That he knocked out Johnson in the fourth further illustrates Beterbiev’s ability to retain his composure, even while in the thick of trouble. But importantly for Yarde’s chances, on both occasions that Beterbiev flirted with the canvas he was put there by short and unsighted blows – and Yarde is dangerous when he’s up close and personal.
But Yarde’s defence will need to be tighter than it’s been before. He likes to approach with his left arm just above his waist and his right hand, always ready to fire, positioned below his chin. It has left him susceptible to being tagged as he advances forward throughout his career. The straight right hand of Beterbiev, which he hurls through the middle the second he can sense a home for it, looks certain to test Yarde’s resilience. The underdog, then, needs to showcase newfound smarts to triumph and ensure his jab – too often just a pawing rangefinder – is snappy and accurate so that the best blows in his arsenal, the curling hooks and uppercuts, have the best chance of landing clean.
Yarde, due to his natural strength, impressive fitness and fast hands, should not be written off entirely. He’s intelligent, banked plenty of lessons from the aforementioned loss to Kovalev and his team have been studying Artur carefully. Beterbiev, whose jagged features could have been carved from stone, has been cut more than once in his career and the slashing mitts of Yarde could reopen old wounds. But, in truth, when attempting to make the case for the upset it’s difficult to do so while retaining any sense of realism. So Beterbiev might get old, he might get cut, he might suffer an injury and he might be dropped by a sharp counter on the way in. But what we know is that, thus far, he not only always wins in very good company, he always does so inside the distance. What we also know is that he’s proven at world class in a way that Yarde simply cannot claim to be.
The pick, therefore, is that Beterbiev halts Yarde. We don’t expect it to be a blowout nor a particularly easy night for the favourite. Yarde, whose power will be respected, can make a confident start but he’ll also be making enough mistakes for the champion to be quietly plotting his challenger’s downfall. We foresee Yarde’s body being raided whenever it’s close enough to be hit and the energy and ambition to slowly but surely drain from within. If he’s still standing by the eighth or ninth, he will have exceeded most reasonable expectation. In short, there is no substitute for education in elite boxing and Yarde, though talented, has surely left it too late to play catch up at this level.
There’s a tasty looking flyweight battle in chief-support. Number three ranked Artem Dalakian, 21-0 (15), of the Ukraine takes on number four, Costa Rica’s David Jiminez, 12-0 (9). Jiminez proved his worth when he upset Ricardo Sandoval in Los Angeles in July, winning a close but deserved majority decision after 12 rounds. Dalakian, meanwhile, has been inactive since November 2021.
This one is well-matched and hard to call. Dalakian, the WBA belt-holder, has operated at a better level for longer, he brings decent power and is clever defensively. But Jiminez, the same height as his opponent at 5ft 4 1/2ins, has the momentum and can edge this one on points.
Carstairs’ Willy Hutchinson, 15-1 (11), has a solid test on paper in the shape of Croatian, Emil Markic, 33-3 (25). The talented Scot appears to be back on track following an upset loss to Lennox Clarke in 2021 but Markic, even at 39, is the best opponent Hutchinson has faced since then.
Markic, stopped in two wild rounds by Callum Johnson in 2021, hits hard but is not exactly elusive. Hutchinson, providing he can avoid a firefight, can box his way to a wide decision victory or late stoppage.
Light-heavyweight starlet Karol Itauma, 9-0 (7), steps up to 10-round level for the first time against Argentine veteran, Ezequiel Osvaldo Maderna, 28-10 (18). The 36-year-old Maderna has lost five of his last seven and may struggle to contain his younger opponent. We expect Itauma to become the fifth man to stop Maderna.
Keep your eye out for Karol’s brother, Moses Itauma, who makes his debut in a four-rounder. Great things are expected of Itauma, for good reason.
THE VERDICT – Yarde is more than capable of having his moments but Beterbiev looks a different level.